Give until it hurts

Then there are clubs like the Friends of Long Island Wrestling, which frequently hands over checks to Republican causes but isn't included on current state or county lists of PACs. Last October, the full-nelson fans gave $1,000 to Gulotta's campaign, followed by $500 in December. In March, they pinned $125 to the mat for the North Merrick Republican Committee, and in April they sprang $125 on the Town of Oyster Bay Republican Committee.

You'd think the man behind all this giving, Jerome Seckler of Massapequa, would have enough political savvy to register his group as a PAC. For in addition to founding the wrestling association, Seckler directs the county's Office of Cultural Development—a title that earns him $95,624 a year and a designation as one of the Island's true renaissance men.

Seckler's department, you might remember, is the one Nassau Pops says sold tickets for a Gulotta fundraiser. Or maybe the tickets actually came from the Friends of the Office of Cultural Development, which tipped $2,000 to Gulotta's campaign last year but doesn't appear on current lists of state or county PACs.

Without records to reveal who's doing what, or even who's who, voters can't tell where candidates get their cash and instead have to rely on the word of those involved. If you're looking for words from Seckler, forget about it, because he's not talking. Meanwhile, charities that unwittingly donate to campaigns have their actions recorded in public documents—much to their surprise.

"Boy, oh, boy," says the Pops' Panacciulli. "You even have my check number?"

Noble like us

If only campaign-finance law made exceptions for those with good intentions, Christian Baiz' headache might disappear.

Baiz serves as treasurer of Save Open Spaces Now, a Suffolk County organization formed in 1998 to protect hamlet centers, preserve farmland and stop suburban sprawl.

Which was fine, until SOS Now got involved in the successful battle to pass a 2-percent real estate tax, designed to fund purchases of undeveloped land in the five East End towns. Using money raised from its members, the group placed ads supporting the November referendum in the Suffolk Times and the News Review. That was enough political activity for someone—officials won't say who—to complain to the Board of Elections that SOS Now should file campaign-finance reports.

Baiz says his alliance spent less than $1,000 on the ads, and chipped that in only after a group leader "panicked" when real estate interests began lobbying against the referendum. "Three of five board members were against spending the money," he says. "But we did it anyway."

After the vote, SOS Now received a letter from the state Board of Elections telling members they needed to file papers. Zalen, the enforcement counsel, told the Voice he's been in touch with the group, and even faxed over a June 7 letter he'd written to the person who complained—with the complainer's name blacked out. In his correspondence, Zalen explained that citizens can band together to seek legal relief if a politically active organization fails to follow the rules.

"The Board has sent a letter to that Committee advising it of the requirement to file," Zalen wrote. "If you wish to take any further action, any five voters may institute a civil action to force the required filings to be made under Election Law Section 16-114."

SOS Now told the state its requirement was unconstitutional, and the skirmish—such as it was—began. Asked for all the letters he'd sent to the Suffolk activists, Zalen turns churlish and refuses. "See, I give you what I can, and this is what I get," he says. "We keep our things confidential. This is just our position on anything."

That also turns out to be SOS Now's position on anything. Baiz says he doesn't want the donors' names made public because their political foes might then harass them. He also says his lawyer advised him that the coalition hadn't spent enough money to qualify as a political action committee.

Yet there's no way to know for sure, because the group won't disclose its finances. In addition to placing the ads, SOS Now contributed to other political organizations, but the amount of that spending, too, remains a mystery. "There was a lot of weekend and up-Island money," Baiz says. "Since I'm not obligated to file, I'm not even going to tell you."

In a perfect world, Baiz says, all candidates' campaigns would be publicly funded. He even believes some manner of financial reporting is a good idea. He just doesn't think the law should apply to "community issues that are as noble as SOS Now."

Baiz says he hasn't heard from election officials for a couple of months, which makes him think the case is going nowhere. In the meantime, SOS Now has continued to press its agenda, hosting community forums and keeping members informed about developers' plans for the East End. "We hope to keep going in that vein," he says. "We hope to be bringing those things into the public arena."

Given Baiz' civic zeal, it's a shame he and other activists don't grasp the importance of putting information about election financing in the public's hands. Whether you're a member of SOS Now or a citizen for Tom Gulotta, you owe it to your community to reveal when you've raised and spent money for political advantage. That way, people know when Big Tobacco is behind a referendum, or when environmentalists support a measure, or when a candidate has been bought and paid for powerful contractors.

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